Friday, September 22, 2017

On Diary Writing and Writing Projects

I've been going through my diaries to find my jot-downs for my book on psychoanalysis but found this from May 30, 2016 and, of course, have gotten sidetracked. It wasn't as neat as it is here - just diary scribbling - so I had to drop my "project" - what I came to the diaries for - to work on it. How could I put this aside? Now for the "major project," which will take me to my diaries again.... and so it goes ... 

Annie at the Park
       - for Heather, Jonathan and Sue

She closes her eyes, 
tilts back her head -
and feels a slight breeze
loving her face.

This child,
a mere three years old - 
stops in the middle 
of her busy life
to appreciate the wisdom 
she was born with.

She is like a butterfly
stopping for a peak - at
the rest of her day.
       - Esther Altshul Helfgott

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Emma at Eleven

Emma's been watching me read
and write in the gazebo
since she was three months old.

Now she's eleven,
sitting on that same perch,
still watching me.

I love her paws and those ears,
always in the perked-up position.

If she hears a sound that doesn't belong here, she's up and running; and that sweet little girl turns into a creature you don't want to mess with.

But when people she knows stop by,
and she recognizes their smells
and their body energy isn't creepy,
she kisses them all over.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Words From the Cafe: an anthology

Words From the Cafe: an anthology edited and introduced by Seattle writer Anna Balint and published by Phoebe Bosche's Raven Chronicles Press (2016) is a book about community; and if there is anything a writer needs it is community.

The contributors to this publication write within a group called the Safe Place Writing Circle; it's housed at the Recovery Cafe in downtown Seattle. Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur: "The Recovery Café is a community, built from the heart of a woman named Killian Noe.

"For 10 years Noe....has been the center of this place, which serves those battling drug and alcohol addiction. She greets, she listens, she hugs, she shares, she remembers every name. And she believes in people who have all but stopped believing in themselves."

The Recovery cafe is a true community center. In addition to coffee and food, it offers a variety of classes, including meditation, yoga, dance and résumé writing.  It helps people find housing. It helps them recover from addictions. “What I see in every person who walks through this door is someone who has suffered with not just one trauma, but one after another and another,” said founding director, Noe, author of Finding Our Way Home: Addictions and Divine Love. [Seattle Times, September 7, 2014]

Enter Anna Balint, writing teacher extraordinaire. With help from Jack Straw Productions, 4Culture and others, Balint has brought together men and women who might otherwise not have had the opportunity to put pen to paper, to tell their stories--for their own benefit, the class's (they share what they write) and,not the least,those of the reading public who are interested in learning how to pull a writing class together and who value voices of our neighbors in recovery.

Esmeralda Hernandez, one of twenty-two contributors to the anthology: "If you watch butterflies, you will see they only interact in small, short moments of safety."

Balint provides a safe environment in her Friday afternoon classes, as measured by the returning participants - those who show up every week, as well as those who drop in occasionally. Anonymous: "You reached into my dark isolation and urged me out with writing." (from the "Introduction").

For the book's epigraph, Balint calls forth words of poet Taha Muhammad Ali:

... it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

Developing a writing class is an art, especially if it develops into a community of writers from different backgrounds, writers who share life stories regardless of where they used to live or where they live right now. Moreover, once one writing group forms, its good will spills over into the larger community - the city - where seeds for fairness and justice are planted and may even be realized.

I share my story, you share your story.
They're not the same story,
but with our stories
we give each other kindness.
- Tamar

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Fireworks, Springhill Avenue, Baltimore, Md. circa 1953

I was twelve and, with the other neighborhood kids, I sat on top of the hill across from “T.A.,” the Talmudical Academy, where the religious boys went to school. I was with the seculars, the public school kids: Alan, Beverly, Carl, my best friend  Marlyn, and I don’t remember who else. Maybe my little sister. My brother was uptown. Or maybe he was at Towanda, the playground with the cigarettes and baseball field, where the 7th grader, Malcolm, set himself on fire because he was afraid to show his “Papa’s All” father his poor grades. 

My father, from Belarus, called us his American children and though watching fireworks was an American activity, I think I felt more immigrant than American-born. We didn’t know about indigenous peoples, didn’t know to speak a tribal name. This was a Jewish neighborhood, and in Baltimore every sect had its own alcove. Nancy Pelosi - her father was Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro -  lived downtown in Little Italy. She was just a year and a half older than me, but we wouldn’t have known each other anyway. I being Jewish and she being Italian.

The only time I went to Little Italy was a few years later, when on a date, we all went out for Italian food. I don’t know if Nancy D’Alessandro Pelosi ever came to my neighborhood. Maybe if she wanted to try Jewish food and sought out a delicatessen. I know I’m stereotyping, but that’s the way it was then; at least, that’s the way I remember it. Poles here, Irish Catholics there. The only time I had contact with Blacks, before the schools were integrated, was when I took the #5 bus downtown through Pennsylvania Avenue. White Christians lived in Roland Park, where Jews and Blacks were not allowed. Adrienne Rich's family lived there. They passed, and she was in her twenties before she found out she was Jewish. (Read her Split at the Root).  

Anyway, watching fireworks in Northwest Baltimore was a strange kind of fun then. The flourishes and colors weren’t particularly exciting, but sitting on a hill (and not in a synagogue) with members of my tribe was. Watching those fireworks on that hill gave me a sense of belonging. They don’t do that for me now. My mother didn’t get excited about them either. While I was outside with the neighborhood kids, she was home sewing. My father? He was out somewhere, probably playing pinochle.

I’ve lived in Seattle since 1976; the Pacific Northwest since 1970. When the fireworks start my dog sits in a corner shaking. I sit with her. Neither one of us appreciates what some call a celebration. Especially in this age of Trump, I see nothing to celebrate.

Monday, August 29, 2016

my email has changed to

Thursday, April 07, 2016

On Bernie and the jews - I am re-publishing (see below) a blog I wrote two years ago because I have recently become Facebook friends with a woman i knew in junior high school. she will not vote for bernie sanders because she's afraid he is not a friend to israel. i think she's wrong, in the same way my cousin sharon was wrong when she referred to me as an "israel hater." that is far from the truth and i'm sorry she feels that way. 

hate begets hate and when i hear another sister jew say she doesn't care about arab mothers because their sons killed her love one, i am brokenhearted. the only antidote to hate is kindness, generosity and love, which doesn't mean you let someone beat you up or murder; it does mean you sit down with antagonists and mediate between them.

i thought i would not write on this subject again - i've been busy writing a biography - but this is my immediate history and i must embrace it, not run away from it, as maybe I have been girlhood classmate is passionate about Israel.i'm passionate about human beings and other creatures,my dog, for instance. 

i'm passionate about bernie sanders because he has the courage to bring commitment and hope to young people the world over. i wish more of us older folks would listen to him.I'm convinced he can help solve huge problems,including those among all my people in the Middle East, the man gives me hope. he helps me get out of bed in the morning. he helps me dream of peace


SUNDAY, JUNE 22, 2014

From Jew to Jew: Dear Sharon

This is my response to your article, “We are here to stay,” in The Times of Israel, June 22,  2014: I wrote to you privately – cousin to cousin - not expecting my words to be printed in an online publication or anywhere else; but since you chose to publish them, I take this opportunity to stand by my words and to explain those that I did not clarify well enough.If you choose to use these words in print, my name should follow. I will not hide from them. 

I did not say that I was an atheist (though many respectable people are). Rather, I do not presume to know whether God exists or if the idea of God was created by human beings or if God Himself/Herself chose to inculcate that idea within us. I certainly do not presume to know what God or G-d promises to the Jewish people anymore than I know what God might promise to any other people. As far as I am concerned we of the human race are all one people and any “promise” God might make to one people I have no doubt that His or Her goodness would extend that promise to all people. 

When Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were kidnapped I was devastated – as you were -- devastated that this should happen and in my family’s – your family’s - neighborhood.  I felt as if those boys were my children, as much as you felt they were yours. Unlike you, I do not believe that prayer will bring those boys back to us. Good will and peace will bring them home. But Netanyahu and others seem bent on war and this is where I must clarify my words. I said “The whole world is looking for peace.” Here I was wrong. I do not believe that some like Netanyahu and Cheney, for instance, look for peace; rather, they seem to enjoy the fight. I do not. 

You write: "Perhaps those Jews in the US who do not believe in G-d and his promises to the Jewish people should not try to help us so much. Those who bless Israel will be blessed.”  Sharon, I am a secular Ashkenazi Jew, just as much a Jew as you are in your religiosity. My mother and your husband’s father - sister and brother - were just as Jewish in their secular thinking as you are in your religious thinking. Your late father-in-law, my Uncle Izzy, would be as appalled by what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians as my mother, Anna, was. I do not accept your telling me not to “try to help us so much.” Everyone must try, each in his or her own way. Jew and non-Jew alike. 

I am not a shul-goer, though I have tried that route-- to my leftist's mother’s surprise. What I see happening in American shuls and Temples, regardless of denomination, is an attempt to find identity through the state of Israel and the Law of Return. I do not feel that I have the right to make aliyah when I am not escaping prejudice. This is certainly not to say that there is no antisemitism here; there is, and in Europe and elsewhere. But the kidnapping had to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not antisemitism; we are not in the midst of a Nazi Holocaust. 

My homeland is North America. I do not feel I have the right to usurp land that I do not need out of fear that there will be another Holocaust or because God “promised” me the land. To my mind, that is an absurd notion used to maintain power, not peoplehood. Human beings wrote the Torah. You are using a religious, i.e., fictitious dictum, to gratify your needs and fantasies about what our world should look like. And it is our world, all of ours. We must negotiate on all sides to make it work for all of us. The best thing about Judaism -  and it is mine whether I am religious or not - ischesed/kindness. I do not see chesed coming from you toward the Palestinians any more than I see it coming from them toward you. 

You write: “Hamas terrorists have not shown even one photo of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.” Has Israel shown photos of all the children the IDF has killed? I want Eyal, Gilad and Naftali home and well. I also do not want other children or you and the rest of my family in Israel to be so cavalier as to think you can go anywhere you want, as if there is no danger, as if you own all the land. 

You may not think this letter comes with love but I assure you it does. If I did not love you, your husband and his sister - my first cousins - and the rest, I would not be so upset. I loved your husband's mother, my Aunt Ruth, all the while I knew how religious she was and what her attitudes were. Uncle Izzy loved her too, and that is why their children went to Hebrew school. It was not just because of Ruth; Uncle Izzy went along with it, just as everyone in the family did - Orthodox, leftist, secular - because we loved Ruth and still do, her memory. We also love a lot of other people and want them all to live in safety. 

Sometimes people who live far from the problem can see more than those who live closest. You will not shut me out of the discussion; in fact, you have brought my Jewish voice to the fore when I did not think I had one.        
Love to you and the family,              

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s

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Book Review: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s, by Esther Altshul Helfgottby Nessa McCasey, PTP, CPT, Mentor, International Academy for Poetry Therapy

 After reading and reviewing Helfgott’s previous book, Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems, last year, I was looking forward to reading her new book of poems, as Esther writes with such compassion and love through the troubles and tribulation of illness (and death). She refuses to shrink from honesty, yet there is no malice in her honesty, even here in these poems about grief. This book is the moving-forward steps that became Esther’s life even as she was still looking for Abe in her community, as if her soul wasn’t convinced that her deceased husband was truly gone from her. I consider this anecdote: There is a story about tribesmen who were guiding an archeological dig but suddenly stopped and refused to go further. The archeologist didn’t understand and was unsuccessful in making the tribesmen go any further. Then the tribesmen picked up their gear and set off once more. When asked, they responded: “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” As I read the pages of poems in Listening to Mozart, I felt myself calming down and experiencing the process of grief as if I was giving my soul time to catch up to me. I certainly hope that happened for Esther as she was writing.

Emotional loss in our fast-paced lives may indeed cause any of us to need time to rest or restore ourselves. Writing as Esther did in this regular rhythm in the form of a journal over the time of mourning her husband’s death could have become the way for herself/her soul to catch up as she processed this major life transition.  The living must take some time to leave the dead behind us. And some day, each of us shall also be left behind. It’s a necessary fact of life. To offset any cruelty about that fact, we have poetry as loveliness to sustain us.
The journey I take as I read through these poems, measured out in three sections that definitely mark a path of grief, recalls for me my own weaving in and out of the grief process. It is good to make these marks on the page and note for ourselves (and others) the path we have trod. The marks we make are our own measure of our being here, alive. We all know we shall die, but the marks we make are meaningful. Abe’s marks are in this book, as he left an imprint of himself on Esther, through their years together, through their love.

Two of my favorite poems:

I write you

onto the page

how else

to keep you with me –

memory fades your wrinkles


I miss

you less

when I write

Listening to Mozart is divided into three sections, bringing a lovely rhythm to the book: Part One: Pulse, Part Two: Breath, Part Three: Sinew. It is as if the poet is plotting out her own way back to herself through these sections. In the first section, Pulse, her grief is evident in nearly every poem.  Abe is “there” with her continually. The second section, Breath, begins with a reminder that Abe is still near her: “touch my arm / you feel his” and each poem seems to remember him but with less sadness, instead with strong memory, marking the days through the calendar’s progression. It is in this second section that Helfgott starts to make logical decisions to appreciate their life together, even while she has to let it go now. She finds compensations to sustain her:

how lucky I

am to have

this chair –

the one you used

to sit in

The final section, Part Three: Sinew, is much more coming back to herself, recognizing that Abe is there, but he’s now able to move more into the background so that Helfgott may go on herself.

I didn’t know

I was having fun

until I saw



of me and Emma –


in the park

She notes that her heart still longs at the third anniversary of 

Abe’s death, but she admits to no longer wearing the mourner’s 

The final poem in the collection reminds me that just showing up and writing is what we all need to do. The writing will take care of itself, but we must show up and write. Esther Altshul Helfgott has done that so well – she has shown up and written through Alzheimer’s and now through the mourning of her husband’s death. She has given us a gift as she did all the hard work and we get to read it.

As a poetry therapist, my professional practice is to choose the appropriate poem to use with a client. In Listening To Mozart, there are indeed individual poems useful for prompting conversation and personal writing. Additionally, this entire book would be a recommendation that I make to a client who experiences grief after long illness. Grieving is a process that takes more time than we typically are allowed, but writing through the process of grieving allows us to take stock more carefully of where we are on that journey. I would encourage my client to write in Esther’s journaling manner, a few lines each day, and see what results. Not all of us will write a poetry book, but we might be able to help ourselves be aware of gifts that come to us while we are grieving.  Simply reading the poems in this collection offers companionship for grief and learning about another’s journey through the process. I found that to be the case for myself in reading this fine collection of poems. -Nessa McCassey

Thanks for stopping by,

Tuesday, December 02, 2014